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Sea shells provide lifelong fascination for former Willmar, Minn., pathologist

Dr. William Reid of Marco Island, Fla., holds a Trumpet Triton, which Reid purchased after it was taken from the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Reid displayed the Triton and 39 other shells at a recent Willmar Noon Rotary Club meeting. Looking on were members Connie Schmoll and Bruce Gomm. Reid and his wife, Ute, spend the summers on their farm south of Kandiyohi. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 3
Dr. William Reid holds a Tiger Cowrie taken from the Indo-Pacific. Reid, who established the pathology department at Rice Hospital in 1966, is self-taught about sea shells. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 3
This imposing shell of the American Thorny Oyster was found in Florida. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)3 / 3

Dr. William Reid was 24 and a medical student in Philadelphia when he received a box of sea shells from his great aunt's estate. Included was the shell of a Tiger Cowrie, a common herbivore found in the Indo-Pacific Ocean and known for its egg-shaped shell with irregular black, brown, gray and white patterns.

Reid was smitten with the beauty of the 200-year-old shell.

"I got hooked on that Cowrie,'' said Reid, now 80. "It wasn't just that one, but that was enough. I thought if they've got something like that out there, I've got to find it. I worship beauty. I like Venus de Milo. The Cowrie is the one that stood out.''

The box of 100 to 150 shells also contained a sperm whale tooth that Reid thinks was owned by his great-great-great-great-grandfather, R. Franklin, a whaling captain. Reid said the tooth has been in the family since 1810-1820.

Along with the captain's initials, the tooth is scrimshawed with scenes of flora and ocean-going vessels. Scrimshaw is the art of carving usually done by American whalers on whalebone or whale ivory.

Reid showed the shells to Dr. R. Tucker Abbott, who at the time was curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, a collector of shells and author of many learned books and authoritative papers on mollusks.

"He took one look at my shells and said, 'Where did you get those?' Then I knew I had something,'' Reid recalls. "And I told him about my ancestor. My ancestor had shells mostly from the Indo-Pacific but also from the Caribbean province.''

Abbott had returned from an expedition and gave Reid about a thousand shells.

"I suddenly had a big collection,'' he said.

Reid has since enlarged his collection considerably. He's found shells himself, received many as gifts and bought many more to the point where he has a collection of no less than 15,000 shells representing about 5,000 of the estimated 100,000 species of mollusks.

"I'm working on my catalog but I'm up to 3,000 already and I have a long ways to go yet,'' said Reid, who showed 40 shells during a recent meeting of the Willmar Noon Rotary Club and to students at Central Minnesota Christian School in Prinsburg and Community Christian School in Willmar.

Reid is a retired pathologist who established and worked in the pathology department at Rice Memorial Hospital from 1966 to 1969 before moving on. He and his wife, Ute, spend the winters at Marco Island, Fla., and Lake Tahoe, and in live in a restored farm house south of Kandiyohi during the summer.

Although Reid's field is pathology, he's self-taught in sea shells and has reference books -- including work by Abbott.

"Being a pathologist, you get to recognize shapes, sizes, colors,'' said Reid. "That's what it's all about. And if you're good at that, and I was pretty good at it, you get attracted to other things. I was trained as a biologist. When I see something natural that's very beautiful, I tend to collect it.''

Each individual is different and the value depends on rarity, family and beauty.

When asked which shell is his favorite, he chuckles and says -- the one in his hand.

"You can't have a favorite shell, that's the trouble,'' he said. "I have certain ones that I really like.''

Reid has found shells all over the world, including Marco Island. He said the Caribbean is the second-richest province for shells. The richest is the Indo-Pacific for species diversity.

Beautiful shells even come from the ocean's coldest depths.

"The ocean is very much alive, even down in Antarctica,'' he said.

But Reid warns that human encroachment on habitat is threatening ocean life.

"Man is a destroyer,'' he said. "We've had five major periods of extinction in the world in the last 500 million years. We're now in the sixth. It's considered to be the worst of all by most researchers and the cause is man. There's two things that really destroy natural ecology areas. One of them is loss of habitat. That's the biggest. The second is exotics.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150